Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Medal Check

Through today's biathlon races, a total of 24 medals have been awarded in eight nordic events - one each in ski jumping and nordic combined, two in cross-country skiing, and four in biathlon - at the Whistler Olympic Park. So far, the main stories have been the unpredictable weather and track conditions and, of course, Norway's poor performance (a topic well covered over at Nordic Xplained).

But there's more to the nordic competition than that, of course. We can identify some of those stories by comparing the first eight nordic events at the 2010 Olympic Games to the first eight events of the 2009 World Championships at Liberec and Pyeong Chang. The comparative medal tables are here.

Though of course the parallels cannot be exact (the venues were obviously different, and the championships also took place at different points in the respective sports' seasons), they are pretty close: ski jumping on the normal hill and men's and women's sprint and pursuit races in biathlon were the first events at both the '09 Worlds and the '10 Olys, while the first nordic combined event at Liberec was the mass start, not the Gundersen at Whistler and the individual start 10k/15k cross-country races were classic at Liberec but freestyle at Whistler.

And but so, patterns emerge. First, exactly 13 nations have won medals so far in the nordic events at these Olympics, and 13 had won medals to the equivalent point at the 2009 Worlds.

Second, France has used its power in biathlon to jump to the top of the leaderboard at Vancouver, with five medals: golds by Jay (biathlon sprint) and Lamy-Chappuis (nordic combined normal hill) and three bronzes (Jay, biathlon pursuit; Dorin, biathlon sprint; Brunet, biathlon pursuit). At the equivalent point in 2009, France had just one medal (a nordic combined bronze), well behind the leader, Norway, which had five medals, all in biathlon - including double golds from Bjørndalen. This year, of course, Norway has "just" two medals - a silver from Svendsen in the biathlon sprint and a bronze from Bjørgen in the 10k freestyle. That could (and should?) change tomorrow in the classic-technique sprints.

Looking at the countries that aren't winning many or any medals so far offers a third perspective on the medal tables. The traditional nordic-skiing powers (the actual Nordic nations plus Russia, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria) had won a combined 18 medals to this point in '09, but have garned only 10 so far this year. Worst off is Finland, which won two medals to this point in 2009 (Saarinen's gold and Heikkinen's bronze in the classic individual start races), but has so far been shut out, and can't expect any medal over the rest of the Games. (Suomi won a total of eight medals at Liberec.)

Though there's more to say - and I welcome comments on the foregoing or other aspects of the medal tables - I'll conclude with a fourth angle on the medal count to date: the success of the "minor countries"* which have collectively accounted for quite a few of the medals won at Vancouver. France, Slovakia, Poland, the USA, and Croatia have taken 10 of the 24 medals to date; at the 2009 Worlds, "minor countries" had only three medals: the USA had a gold, France and Poland each had a bronze.

* I know, I know - a fuzzy term. Should the Czech Republic or Estonia belong to this category, or not? Italy? I dunno. Possible determinants of major vs. minor status might be whether a country gets all of its medals from just one or two racers (Bauer; Majdic; Veerpalu and Smigun-Vaehi) or in one discipline (Italy's pretty much only good in cross-country) or whether it can field a decent XC or biathlon relay team (which rules out Estonia and Poland, but also Austria and probably the Czech Republic this year. Suggestions welcome.